Welcome to this week’s installment of the From Eternity to Here book club. Chapter Six is entitled “Looping Through Time.” It’s about both the logical paradoxes presented by time travel, and some of the obstacles to actually building a time machine (closed timeline curves) in general relativity.
Everyone knows what a time machine looks like: something like a steampunk sled with a red velvet chair, flashing lights, and a giant spinning wheel on the back. For those of a younger generation, a souped-up stainless-steel sports car is an acceptable substitute; our British readers might think of a 1950s style London police box. Details of operation vary from model to model, but when one actually travels in time, the machine ostentatiously dematerializes, presumably to be re-formed many millennia in the past or future.
That’s not how it would really work. And not because time travel is impossible and the whole thing is just silly; whether or not time travel is possible is more of an open question than you might suspect. I’ve emphasized that time is kind of like space. It follows that, if you did stumble across a working time machine in the laboratory of some mad inventor, it would simply look like a “space machine”—an ordinary vehicle of some sort, designed to move you from one place to another. If you want to visualize a time machine, think of launching a rocket ship, not disappearing in a puff of smoke.
There might not be too much new to say about this chapter, as part of it appeared as an excerpt in Discover and we’ve already talked about that. But maybe you weren’t reading that post, in which case, it’s new to you!
There were three main goals in this chapter. The first was to explain what time travel would and would not be, in the context of general relativity — in particular, it would be just another form of travel through spacetime, not involving any disappearing and rematerializing at some other point in the past. The second was to go through some of the possible ways to make closed timelike curves (with wormholes or cosmic strings) and see how difficult it really was.
But the third and most interesting goal was to connect time machines to the arrow of time and entropy. At this point in the book we’ve only introduced these concepts somewhat casually — the careful exploration of entropy is in Part Three, which begins next week — so one could argue that a more logical presentation would have delayed this discussion for later. But sometimes there are considerations beyond logic; in particular, once we built up momentum with the entropy discussion, a digression on time travel would have seemed like wandering too far afield. That was my feeling at the time, anyway.
This is a really interesting aspect of time travel, which I think is dramatically under-emphasized in discussions about it: the real reason why traveling backwards in time makes us nervous is that it becomes impossible to define a consistent arrow of time. The arrow is very ingrained in how we think about the world, including the sense that the past is set in stone while we can still make choices that affect the future. In the presence of a time machine part of our personal “future” is already in the “past,” which seems to compromise our free will.
So be it! Our free will was always an approximation, if we are good materialists who believe in the laws of physics. But it’s a highly useful approximation. It’s always worth emphasizing, when you start talking about the paradoxes of time travel: the simplest and most plausible way out is to imagine that the universe doesn’t (and won’t ever) actually have any time machines.